MONTREAL — COVID-19 vaccination is no longer enough to prevent Quebec's health system from becoming overwhelmed, and Quebecers must reduce their contacts by half, Premier François Legault said Thursday.
Hours after new modelling indicated the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus could push hospitals to reach dedicated COVID-19 capacity within weeks, Legault announced a series of added COVID-19 restrictions.
"It's important to say that in this fight, vaccination is not sufficient," Legault told reporters in Montreal. "The second thing is that we have to reduce contacts to be less often around other people."
Starting Monday, all bars, restaurants, retail stores and entertainment venues across the province will be required to operate at 50 per cent capacity. Churches and other faith venues will also be forced to operate at half capacity, and worshippers will be required to show proof of vaccination to enter. Work parties will be banned, as will dancing and singing karaoke inside bars, clubs and restaurants.
And for the second year in a row, Legault walked back from plans to relax COVID-19 restrictions ahead of the holidays, keeping the maximum at 10 people instead of raising it to 20 on Dec. 23.
Last year, while the province was under a strict lockdown, Legault said he would allow private gatherings over a four-day period, before reversing that decision. He imposed a nighttime curfew across the province a few weeks later.
Asked if Quebecers would find themselves under a curfew again this winter — the last curfew was in effect from January to May — Legault refused to rule it out.
"There is an enormous difference with last year on the same day: it's vaccination. But on the other hand, it takes a third dose," he said, referring to the level of protection health experts say is needed against the Omicron variant, which is believed to be more transmissible than Delta.
"It's not impossible that next week we will have to adjust — it's not impossible. With the information we have today, it's imperfect information; these are the measures we think we need to put in place."
Quebec will make COVID-19 booster doses available to residents under 60 in January, Legault said, adding that people will be vaccinated in order of their risk.
The province will also begin vaccinating those 60 to 69 this month, Health Minister Christian Dubé said, adding that the interval between second and third doses will be cut to three months from six months.
Third doses of COVID-19 vaccines had previously only been available to those over 70, to health-care workers, and to those with weakened immune systems. The province had planned to make boosters available to people aged 60 to 69 in January.
Quebec reported 2,736 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday — the highest number since Jan. 8 — and Legault said the number will jump to at least 3,700 on Friday. The Health Department reported five additional deaths linked to the disease and said 305 people were in hospital with COVID-19, including 63 in intensive care.
Earlier Thursday, a Quebec government health-care research institute said it expected more than 700 non-ICU hospitalizations in the province, and more than 160 people in intensive care, within two to three weeks. The Institut national d'excellence en santé et services sociaux said it had adjusted its projections to take into account new research about the Omicron variant.
"The strong growth in the number of cases should translate into a marked increase in the number of daily hospitalizations in the coming weeks," it said in a news release. That number of patients would require hospitals to set aside additional COVID-19 beds, Health Department spokeswoman Marie-Claude Lacasse said in an email.
But the institute said it was less confident than usual in its projections, because it said its data on the Omicron variant was based on a single study conducted in South Africa, which has a significantly lower vaccination rate than Quebec.
Also Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens said their home game scheduled for that evening would be held with no fans in attendance at the request of public health officials. The NHL team said in a news release it would provide an update Friday on whether fans would be allowed to attend a game scheduled for Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2021.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press